Ventures Into Childland: Victorians, Fairy Tales, and Femininity

Vallone, Lynne

U.C. Knoepflmacher. 1998. Ventures Into Childland:

Victorians, fairy Tales, and femininity.

Chicago: University of Chicago Press. $35.00 hc. xxi + 444 pp.

Lynne Vallone

Texas A & M University

U. C. Knoepflmacher’s long-awaited and big new book packs a wallop: a lavishly illustrated, intricately argued, and vast overview of seven Victorian authors who within a short span of only twenty years (the early 1850s to the early 1870s) wrote some of the most enduring fantasies for children, Ventures into Childland puts children’s literature squarely at the heart of Victorian literary history. Knoepflmacher may indeed have written, as he notes himself, “the most comprehensive history (literary and cultural) yet written about the so-called golden age of children’s literature” (xiii). But such putative boasting is not really misplaced. There’s not another book out there like this one. Clearly whatever Knoepflmacher has ever thought about Victorian literature and his seven authors-Lewis Carroll, Juliana Horatia Ewing, Jean Ingelow, George MacDonald, Christina Rossetti, John Ruskin, and William Makepeace Thackeray-can be found in each chapter of multiple sections that taken together, resemble nothing so much as masterpieces of Victorian fantasy themselves.

The very engaging preface addresses the reader politely yet directly-“May I detain you?” (xi)-and goes on to offer a cogent and useful introduction to the book’s issues, as one might well expect. But the opening pages reveal something more, too, something just as valuable to the readers of this book: a glimpse at the refugee child behind the scholar whose “privilege” to live out his childhood was denied so many other children by the Nazi regime. Knoepflmacher’s personal dream-child-an anonymous Polish Jewish boy from the Warsaw ghetto, 1941-offers a gentle corrective to the sentimental (male) fantasists-or anyone-whose desires to preserve a prepubescent childhood can be read as cloudy nostalgia.

The central argument of the book pits Golden Age male fantasists (Ruskin, Thackeray MacDonald and Carroll) against the female writers who followed (Ingelow, Rossetti, and Ewing). Knoepflmacher’s interest here follows fruitfully upon the work he began with Nina Auerbach in Forbidden Journeys: Fairy Tales and Fantasies by Victorian Women Writers (1992). Knoepflmacher describes male authors who fixated on little girls or girl-boys and wrote stories of loss and a desire for reunion with the maternal: “The image of an arrested girl allows each elegist to idealize his own lost childhood oneness” (12).The female authors reacted against such regressive fantasies and aggressively insisted-even within wonder tales where the maternal is celebrated-on the reinstatement of the real and the necessity of growing up. It may be surprising to learn that Knoepflmacher finds male writers to be the primary sufferers from the pervasive ideology of the separate spheres that helped to organize nineteenth-century English life rather than the female authors who lived the restrictive “oneness” just about every day of their lives.

Ruskin, Carroll, MacDonald and Thackeray were all inspired by daughters or particular “girl-friends”-not so Ingelow, Rossetti, and Ewing, who wrote for all children who were meant to grow into adults. There is little such personal investment in miniatures to be found in the fiction of the female authors. For Ingelow, Rossetti and Ewing, the “realities of gender binaries” were just too great to ignore or to elide through fantasies of arrested development or aesthetic death. If the male fantasists write of their desire for the lost mother then the female revisionists act the mother’s part and provide “mentorias” to educate their readers and redact “male constructions they target as irresponsible” (427).

Ventures Into Childland engages in an interesting and respectful extended dialogue with James Kincaid’s Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture (1992), an always provocative and often aggravating text that locates the pedophile in the Victorian and in “us.” I generally find Knoepflmacher’s more nuanced readings of the erotic potential of children or child figures and the culture that created them more satisfying than Kincaid’s pedophile hunt.Taken together these two books make important contributions to the field of children’s literature scholarship.

If there is a heroine of Knoepflmacher’s text it is Juliana Horatia Ewing, the least well-known of the authors under discussion yet the one who “by sidestepping the intertextual squabbles among the other six writers . . . manages to reinstate a female authority in children’s texts” (428). Knoepflmacher argues that Ewing’s fiction most successfully combines fantasy with moral realism. Her “Amelia and the Dwarfs” for example, begins with a disagreeable girl (a stock character from didactic books of the eighteenth century) who chooses appropriate femininity after an extended sojourn underground with greedy and lascivious fairy folk. This experience taught her a different perspective on waste and household management as well as the necessity of using feminine wiles to get what she wanted (in this case, her freedom from the dwarves). The reclamation of the unlovely girl who is forced to recognize and take responsibility for her own shortcomings is later appropriated by Frances Hodgson Burnett in The Secret Garden, a novel in which a similarly realistic transformation coincides with a magical realm (although in Burnett the fantasy is more sublimated into psychological development which befits a Freudian-era work). Ewing is a “bridge-builder” (387) who links the productive moralists of the eighteenth century and Romantic era–such as Maria Edgeworth-with the subversive fantasies of Victorian women writers like Rossetti and Ingelow.

“Femininity” is a term that is bandied about quite a bit in the book-it serves as one of the “legs” of the title-yet is never interrogated or described until the Epilogue. This is the only real misstep of the book as “femininity” is asked to do a lot of work for Knoepflmacher’s argument. At times it means maternity other times girlhood, or a lack of masculinity The discussion of femininity might well have been placed in the first chapter, and readers are encouraged to read the Epilogue first in order to orient themselves to Knoepflmacher’s use of terms.

Near the end of the preface Knoepflmacher confronts the all too common complaint leveled against those of us who teach Children’s Literature from a serious, scholarly point of view: that by critically reading books for the young we somehow “spoil the magic” of their fictional worlds. That fear is certainly groundless here. Knoepflmacher’s readings are jewels in and of themselves and serve by their very care and attention to illuminate some of the masterpieces of children’s literature from the Victorian age.

Copyright West Chester University Fall 2000

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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